Comment: Critical Point Physics World  October 2021

The nuclear fight

Robert P Crease talks to William D Magwood IV, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency, about the battle to keep nuclear power on the agenda

From physics to politics William D Magwood IV, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency, thinks nuclear power can help us meet net-zero targets. (Courtesy: NEA)

William Magwood’s aunt once asked him what he did all day. “I fight,” answered Magwood, who at the time directed the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology at the US Department of Energy (DOE). “I fight over money, I fight over people, I fight over office space, I fight over programmes.” Currently the director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Magwood continues to have to fight despite the fact that he does so in the service of planetary wellbeing. 

Magwood grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was then a centre of US nuclear technology thanks to the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which in 1957 had built America’s first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport, about 40 km north-west of the city. But that reactor closed in 1982, the same year that Magwood got his bachelor of science degree in physics from Carnegie Mellon University. Nuclear energy appeared on the way out, people were losing their jobs, and it seemed a terrible career choice. 

“Initially I tried to avoid it,” Magwood told me via Zoom from the NEA’s headquarters in Paris. He considered aerospace as a possible career, then computer technology. “But I found myself coming back.” He worked first at Westinghouse, before joining the DOE in 1994. “I think they chose me because I could spell ‘neutron’,” he jokes. “It was a strange time. I was a nuclear guy in the middle of the action, while they were in the process of shutting everything down. I saw my job as trying to preserve as much as I could.” But the amount of research money for nuclear programmes at the DOE kept dropping, and in 1998 was zeroed out. Magwood then became director of the office, making him the senior nuclear technology official in the US government.

Frustratingly, he had responsibility only for the technical, rather than the political, aspects of nuclear energy. A particularly painful episode occurred in 1997, when a leak of tritium-containing water was discovered during a routine maintenance shutdown at the High Flux Beam Reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The reactor produced neutrons for scientific research and although the leak was of no danger to health or safety, it created a political and media firestorm.

“It was the finest high-beam neutron source anywhere,” Magwood recalls. “From the technical standpoint it was clear that the reactor was safe, very well operated, in excellent condition, and that the neutron-science community wanted it very badly. I don’t think that it was in anybody’s imagination that it could lead to the reactor being shut down.”

Except that, in 1999, it was. While there were no technical issues with restarting the reactor, the then DOE secretary Bill Richardson confronted plenty of political concerns. “Maybe his judgement was that this wasn’t a battle worth fighting,” says Magwood. “We didn’t like the decision. But it was Richardson’s to make.” For Magwood, it was an important lesson. “Governments make decisions for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s not because of the technical arguments.”

A clearer understanding

In September 2014 – exactly seven years before our conversation – Magwood moved to Paris as the NEA’s director-general. The NEA, which has 34 member nations, does not promote nuclear energy, but provides analysis and understanding of how it fits in with other energy sources, trying to ensure that governments make energy decisions on a sound technical basis rather than just on hearsay. Rhetorically, he said, it’s easy for politicians to promise that one can run the entire energy system with 100% renewables, but when you look carefully that idea evaporates. “People don’t want to look at the situation realistically. When you do, it means you have to make real choices. Nobody likes to do that, especially politicians.”

The NEA, though, tends not to play a big role at meetings such as the upcoming COP26 climate summit. “There’s a dynamic in a lot of multinational venues when it comes to climate change,” says Magwood. “Most countries recognize that nuclear likely will play a role in the future. But a few nations have strong opinions to the contrary, and to avoid complications the organizers tend to leave it out. So you can go to ministerial meetings on climate and rarely hear talk about nuclear with any substance.”

But Magwood hopes that will change. “The closer we get to the net-zero 2050 target, the more clearly nations will see they are not meeting their targets, and the more they may ask themselves, ‘What tool have we not been using to get us there?’ The obvious answer is nuclear. That will bring it back into the conversation.”

Magwood considers much of the NEA’s success at promoting energy realism is due to its international status. “In many countries, if domestic scientists say that something is the right thing to do, people are sceptical, but if it comes from an international source the statement acquires greater credibility. It’s sort of the opposite reflex in the US, where people tend to believe what their own people say, and distrust it if it comes from overseas.” 

The critical point

Nuclear energy is at a crossroads, Magwood believes. Most of the projects to develop innovative nuclear systems – such as high-temperature gas or molten salt reactors – will, he points out, come to fruition in the next five years. “Then we’ll know if they solve the issues and technical challenges. If successful, they could be game-changers. If not, the future gets dimmer. For I’m not sure the existing technologies will be able to be built in sufficient quantities to make a big difference.”

But as far as Magwood is concerned, if you want to keep the lights on at the same time as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, there aren’t many options. “People who run electric systems understand that, and eventually policymakers will catch up,” he concludes. 

Though not, clearly, without a fight.